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Post-modern dance finds a ready audience in small towns

A dancer who is attached to the ceiling by a long thick rope flies through a mass of dancers, alighting briefly on one and swinging away. Another dancer's arm goes akimbo, and he freezes while slowly toppling over. The choreographer herself comes onstage, dressed in floaty gray prisonwear, and announces, ``Doing this dance is like filling a front-load washer -- with a load of typewriters.'' She procedes to rotate her fists, thumbs out, and talk to us while moving like a well-oiled machine.

She is Trisha Brown, one of the leaders of the post-modern dance movement for 20 years. She and her company of eight dancers have just finished bringing their spark and grace to New England towns.

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The tour is proving that small-town audiences are hungry for dance. The troupe was greeted on opening night in Hartford, Conn., by a standing ovation. And in Hadley, Mass., the performance and lecture-demonstration were sold out.

Audience members drove 100 miles to see them in Lyndonville, Vt.

And 1,200 people came to see them in Orono, Maine.

Trisha Brown's tour is part of the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) program to bring non-regional dance to places that might not otherwise see it.

In the past few years, NEFA has helped sponsor Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Attleboro, Mass., Ballet Hispanico in Vermont, David Gordon and Pick-up Company at Harvard University, and stars of the New York City Ballet at Jacob's Pillow, in western Massachusetts.

NEFA's program is one of 20 similar ones around the country that is assisted annually by a National Endowment for the Arts program.

``People had said, `You're going to very small theaters; what are they going to think of you?' '' says Ms. Brown, after the performance. ``As if we were from the moon! The comparison was as if we were going to Beijing.''

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To an audience not up on post-modern dance, it might feel a bit otherworldly.

The costumes are floppy pajamas; the music (by Peter Zummo) at one point sounds like a harmonica by a fireside accompanied by a squeaky screen door. The dancers roll, squiggle, start in one direction, and change their minds.

``With something like Trisha Brown there's no story to choreograph; it is movement explored for its own sake,'' says Joel Craven, founder and executive director of Catamount, the dance presenter in Lyndonville.

``The interpretation is left to the individual completely,'' he continues. ``The key challenge is to get audiences to trust their own interpretation of the work.''

But dance is no stranger to many of these areas. While Lyndonville, a town of 5,000, is the smallest one on the tour, it has seen Merce Cunningham, Nikolais Dance Theatre, and Murray Louis Dance Company in the last six years, says Mr. Craven.

Building a dance audience takes time, and the years of presenting modern dance, as well as having lecture-demonstrations and in some cases master classes is starting to pay off.

``Cunningham was very challenging,'' says Craven. ``Trisha is equally challenging, but the audience warmed to it, I think because of the strong presence of her own personality in the work and in the solo piece. Trisha's imprint came across strongly despite its avant-garde nature and found a very receptive audience.''

He says that children are often the most receptive to these new works, and that because all the local dance studios come to the performances, there are a lot of children.

The tour is made possible by a complicated structure of support by local presenters, state and regional arts agencies, and government funding.

Local presenters desiring certain dance troupes apply for funds from NEFA.

NEFA has a pool of funds from the six New England state arts councils, corporate and private sources, and a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) agency with a most ungraceful name -- the Dance/Inter-Arts/State Programs Presenting/Touring Initiative.

The Inter-Arts program spends $700,000 to help fund programs like NEFA's around the country, says Joel Snyder, acting director of the program.

This season it helped 150 separate companies hit the road, doing 350 performances. Last year NEFA put up $80,000 for nonregional dance presentations, $17,000 of which came from the NEA program.

Because the NEA funds can be used only for artists' fees, the rest of the money for marketing and technical costs must come from state arts councils and corporate sources.

``It's often difficult to find support,'' says Janice Del Sesto, director of development and communications for NEFA. ``Many companies are unwilling to associate their name with risk-taking, avant-garde work. So there's just a few willing to. But a funny thing happened with Trisha. Audience response and good press has made the companies excited. So there's a potential for support in future.''

Presenters say that, without these programs, there would be little nonregional dance in the hinterlands.

``The company requires a lot of technical support, both theaters are vastly underequipped facilities requiring lots of preparation in terms of lighting,'' explains Craven.

``It underscores for my organization the extraordinary degree of subsidy required to make this work.''

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